Dominique Drakeford On Why 'Sustainability' Needs A New Definition

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."
Dominique Drakeford on Why Sustainability Needs a New Definition

Image by mbg Creative x Timothy Smith / Contributor

In our series Making History, we're talking to people who are leading the charge to bring much-needed diversity to wellness. They're sharing with us the work that they do, highlighting the voices that need to be heard, and telling us what we as a wellness community aren't talking about—but should be. This week, we spoke with Dominique Drakeford—a sustainable fashion veteran whose platform, MelaninASS (short for Melanin and Sustainable Style), seeks to catalyze diversity in the industry.

What inspired you to start MelaninASS?

It was the culmination of love but also frustration. The frustration came from being in the sustainable space and realizing that hardly any people who looked like me were being represented. There was such a lack of inclusion and representation, specifically in fashion. At the same time, I have such an immense love for my blackness and for black and brown indigenous communities. The absence of our narratives just didn't make any sense to me.

I really wanted to amplify and elevate the work and the voices of black and brown indigenous folks globally who were participating in sustainable fashion. I focused mainly on interviews since I wanted to hear from people who were left out of the conversation. I also needed to see them, so I worked with my now-fiancé Timothy Smith, who is a photographer, to capture folks of color in sustainable fashion and change that narrative as well. It was contextual but also visual.

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Who do you typically feature on the platform?

Designers, artisans, makers, activists, educators—anyone who I personally feel inspired by and who can change the public consciousness of what sustainability looks like. It's anybody in the space who's really trying to cultivate change.

Have you seen the sustainability movement become more inclusive in recent years?

Yes, definitely. For a pinch of my background, I got my B.A. in business environmental management, and I moved to New York from Oakland to get my master's in sustainable entrepreneurship and fashion at NYU, so I have been in the environmental space for upward of 10 years.

When I first started, the sustainability space was not inclusive of people who looked like me. I would say that now—after a lot of people have advocated for not only representation and inclusivity but also equity and stakeholdership—I've seen a shift in consciousness. There's an understanding that visibility is imperative, and there needs to be a shift in power dynamics as well so that representation is not just singular or monolithic.

If I feel like a brand is really working hard to be ethical, mitigate their environmental footprint, and be representative of communities of color with their collections, I will support that brand.

There are more people who aren't afraid to talk about it now, and that's exciting. People who have been hidden behind closed doors and haven't been recognized are starting to open up and be proud and unapologetic about the fact that they're sustainable. We still have a long ways to go, but we're definitely taking the right baby steps.

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Who are some of the people you admire most in the sustainable fashion space?

Definitely Akilah who owns the brand Fatra. She is an accessory designer who uses plastic laundry detergent containers and other upcycled materials to create handbags. I think that's a beautiful example of creating infrastructure around waste. Mara Hoffman has been an asset and a catalyst and such an amazing person, not only with her line but by extending a helping hand to women across the board who are doing great work in sustainability. I am also obsessed with Lulah, a line of handbags created by formerly incarcerated folks and returning citizens. I love them. I could go on and on and on!

How would you describe your personal style?

My style feels very eclectic. When I go out into the world, I really want my clothes to be reflective of the energy of that day. And I would say at this point it might be about 60% thrifted vintage; the other percentage is indy brands. I feel that fashion is very political, and I want to make sure that I'm always wearing something—every single day—that is designed by a black or brown indigenous person. I support any brand that I feel like has a positive ethos. I don't look for perfection in regards to sustainability—I look for progress. If I feel like a brand is really working hard to be ethical, mitigate their environmental footprint, and be representative of communities of color with their collections, I will support that brand.

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I know you travel a lot for work. Have you seen similar issues around representation abroad?

It's always interesting because here in the states we do talk about race a lot more freely than people do in other countries. But, for example, next month I'm going to travel to Australia to talk about inclusion and equity at a sustainable fashion conference there. That's something that would have been completely unheard of five years ago. Being able to openly criticize a sustainable fashion space where everybody feels like they're doing good and saying, "Well, actually, this is where we could do better"... These conversations are happening more and more.

I'm really hoping we create a collective paradigm shift, and I know a lot of times that begins on the ground.

But again, there's so much work to be done. Even when I travel to black and brown indigenous cultures, there's a colonial unlearning: It's about reaffirming that black and brown communities have played such an imperative part in the movement, but they've been conditioned to feel like they haven't because it doesn't fit the mainstream narrative. There's a lot of decontextualizing to do on what sustainability means for people in their respective cultures and communities for sure.

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How do you personally define sustainability?

I define sustainability as an inherently black and brown indigenous regenerative mechanism for living and engaging with nature. It's grounded in an ancestral relationship with the earth but has evolved into a resistance of colonial structures so we can all find well-being, joy, and empathy-based healing.

What did we as a society get wrong about sustainability?

The original folks who spearheaded the movement and controlled the narrative weren't inclusive of black and brown indigenous people's voices and the work they were doing for centuries before there was even the need for sustainability. That's why we're here today. We're getting the definition of sustainability wrong. What we have to do is go back and relearn what sustainability really means and make sure the mic is passed to those who have created the ideology of sustainability in the first place.

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What do you hope the sustainability movement looks like in 5 or 10 years' time?

I really hope that the conversation around sustainability will not be linear. I hope there are micro-communities: Each one operates differently and has their own heartbeat, but they all come together toward the same goal. Rebuilding on a community level is something that's really precious to me. On a more institutional, infrastructural level I'm hoping that we can figure out ways to dismantle systems that have been quite frankly racist and oppressive for a very long time so we can begin to uplift all of those little micro-communities into the system. I'm really hoping we create a collective paradigm shift, and I know a lot of times that begins on the ground.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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